by Sean Chercover
Okay, so I’m drinking at the Billy Goat Tavern a few days ago. Sitting at the bar. A college football game is on TV. Nick is behind the stick, smoking a cheap cigar and telling me all about his strategy for betting football. The spread will kill you over time, so don’t mess with the spread. Always bet the over/under. Total points on tonight’s game is 38, and Nick has taken the over. Before the evening is out, he will win his bet.
Not a lot of tourists in the place tonight, and the tourists usually sit at the tables anyway. On any given night, sitting at the bar, you’ll meet newspaper reporters, lawyers, union heavies, cops, teachers, and even the occasional politician.
An interesting mix of people tonight, and the conversation turns to corruption in local politics (a popular subject in bars across Chicago, and here at The Outfit). Tonight at the Billy Goat, we’ve got reformers and status quo-ers, and everybody’s got a story to tell.
The point is, if you write crime fiction and your idea of research is sitting at your computer surfing the Internet, you’re missing out.
I recently heard a mystery writer (who I suspect writes about crime-solving cats, or at least includes recipes and knitting patterns in her books) say, “All these books full of foul-mouthed policemen aren’t actually realistic at all. I’ve been on three ride-alongs with the police and never once heard a profanity.” Right. Going on ride-alongs with cops is worthwhile, but keep in mind that the cops are on a PR assignment.
The fact that I used to work as a private investigator doesn’t mean I can write my name in the dirt with a stick. But it allowed me to experience subcultures that tend to be closed to outsiders (including writers who show up, notebooks in hand, on research assignments).
I’m not advocating such extreme measures for all writers of crime fiction. Chandler was never a detective. Hammett was. Did that make Chandler an inferior writer? Nope. You don’t have to work as a detective to write about detectives, any more than you have to rob a bank to write about bank robbers.
But if you want to write about cops and politicians and bad guys (some of whom may be cops and politicians), then it wouldn’t hurt to at least meet a few. And meet them in their natural habitat.
Which brings us back to the Billy Goat. Chicago is blessed with multitudes of these ‘water cooler’ joints. But whatever city you live in, there are bars and diners and pool halls and cigar shops and bowling alleys and barbershops that serve as community water coolers.
Hang around and keep your ears open, and you’ll soon know which joints cater to which subcultures. It’s far easier than putting in time working as a cop, or a bank robber. And you’ll reap benefits that you just can’t get by surfing websites.
So take some time away from the computer, get out there and circulate.